A Marketing ploy with Military precision

Gulf News, September 28, 2005

Pakistan’s establishment has used General Pervez Musharraf’s annual trips to the UN General Assembly, at least since 9/11, as occasions to prove the international credentials of their boss.

Pakistan’s official as well as semi-independent media covers the general’s meetings with world leaders to prove to Pakistanis he has support of the international community and, therefore, opposing him or expecting his removal from office any time soon is futile.

In the past, Musharraf’s UN visits have been followed with engineered defections of opposition politicians and sponsored commentary pointing out how as Pakistan’s only “leader” with global stature, Musharraf is the country’s only hope.

The phenomenon is not new. Pakistan’s status as a national security state often results in the assumption that external support and internal political strength go hand-in-hand. That several Pakistani rulers have run into unanticipated difficulties at home at the height of their popularity with foreign powers has done little to change the perception of “Allah, America and the Army” being keys to political power in Pakistan. Of course, right now Musharraf appears about as mighty and unassailable as Ayub Khan did at the beginning of 1968 or Ziaul Haq was perceived 20 years later.

The domestic opposition, under constant attack, seems weak and demoralised. Musharraf told Pakistani journalists in New York that he saw no reason to change course. President Bush has never told him (Musharraf) to give up his general’s uniform and thereby return Pakistan to civilian rule. The general sees his overtures towards Israel as a potential new source of external strength. The American Jewish community, always at the forefront of the global struggle for human rights and democracy, might mute its criticism of Musharraf (or so he hopes) in return for the world’s second largest Muslim country possibly extending a hand of friendship to Israel.

Gimmicks are seldom a substitute for substantive actions at home as well as abroad. Despite his confidence bordering on arrogance, Musharraf’s UN trip did not play out as scripted. The general’s universally condemned remarks about rape victims in Pakistan diluted whatever media impact he had expected from his address to the leaders of the American Jewish community.

Not impressed

Not all Jewish leaders were impressed by the general and participants in the meeting were evenly divided between those calling for giving him a chance and those wondering aloud if he could be trusted.

Apart from the rape comment fiasco, the greatest setback for Musharraf came in the stalling of the India-Pakistan peace process. India and Pakistan are still talking, but the absence of a breakthrough during Musharraf’s meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh denied him the success he has been betting on.

Since the beginning of the current peace process, there has been a feeling of relief on both sides of the border over the peace process being under way. But that sense of relief is gradually giving way to traditional patterns of confrontation and refusal to back down. The number of Indians refusing to trust Musharraf is now growing.

The hardcore around Musharraf that remains committed to an ideological foreign policy casting India as a permanent enemy continues to thrust the Kashmir issue into the foreground. Musharraf himself shows no sign of recognising that the economic and military race with India is a losing proposition and that Pakistan’s friends such as the United States are fair-weather and cannot be counted on in the contest with India.

Pakistani ideologues continue to assert that “some gain in Kashmir” must precede or accompany any decision to dismantle the infrastructure of anti-India Islamist militancy within Pakistan. Many civilians on both sides continue to engage in cultural and other exchanges. But the question in Pakistan always is, how strong is the constituency for peace within the Pakistani military?

The thinking of civilians is seemingly less important in a country where the military calls the shots. There was no Pakistani civilian constituency for supporting the Sikh insurgency in India during the 1980s. But Pakistan did it nevertheless. The domestic civilian constituency for supporting the Taliban was weak when the Taliban ascended to power. There was confusion in civilian society when the decision was taken to end support for the Taliban after 9/11. Pakistan’s establishment made both decisions because it considered them strategically important.

Musharraf cannot move forward with the India-Pakistan peace process, or for that matter go beyond symbolic gestures towards Israel, because his institutional mandate from the Pakistani military does not go beyond such gestures. The Pakistan army has not made the institutional decision to relinquish political control or to voluntarily give up its position of privilege and power. Musharraf has modelled his carefully balanced combination of foreign overtures and domestic machinations on Hosni Mubarak’s strategy of controlling Egypt, which has become a stagnant nation that lives off strategic rents in the form of US aid. The US may not, however, want Pakistan to be a stagnant nation with nuclear weapons, limiting Musharraf’s options.

Rape Remark is no humor in Uniform

Gulf News, September 21, 2005

Controversy is currently raging about Pakistan’s President General Pervez Musharraf’s remarks to the Washington Post suggesting that rape had become a “moneymaking concern” in Pakistan and that many Pakistanis felt it was an easy way to make money and get a Canadian visa. The general, through his media managers, is denying that he ever made the insensitive remarks attributed to him. He is, after all, the advocate of “enlightened moderation” and cannot afford a furore over a remark to deprive him of his image as a reformer.

The Washington Post, of course, has Musharraf’s interview on tape. That newspaper’s standards of probity are far superior to the ethical standards of Pakistan’s coup makers. After all, those who think nothing of repeatedly doing away with their country’s constitution and describe it as an action to save the country live with rules quite different to those practised by the rest of civilisation.

Good intentions

For his part, Musharraf invoked his sincerity and good intentions to deny what was clearly an unguarded comment. “Let me say with total sincerity that I never said that and it has been misquoted,” Musharraf told a women’s group.

“These are not my words and I would go to the extent of saying I am not so silly and stupid to make comments of this sort.”

In an interview with CNN, Musharraf tried to get off the hook by claiming that the objectionable remarks were made by someone else in his presence and not by him. The unanswered question, in that case, is why he said nothing to correct that someone else if he disagreed with him?

Musharraf’s comments, as cited by the Washington Post, are not very different from the normal discourse in Pakistan’s cantonments, where the views of Pakistan’s generals, including Musharraf’s, are shaped. Delve into Pakistani history and parallel comments by Musharraf’s predecessors can easily be unearthed.

The Pakistan army’s first indigenous commander-in-chief, General Ayub Khan (who, as president, got his cabinet to promote him to field marshal) once declared that he intensely disliked “goats and journalists”. He also spoke in disparaging terms of more than half of Pakistan’s then population, the Bengalis. Ayub Khan’s successor Yahya Khan made light of allegations that Pakistani troops had raped Bengali women.

Some of Yahya Khan’s associates insinuated that the alleged rapes were nothing but illicit romantic liaisons between Bengali women and “handsome” West Pakistani soldiers. Throughout the Bangladesh civil war, Pakistani military officers referred to the Bengalis as “miscreants” and disparaged any civilian expressing concern for human rights in the eastern wing of the country.

Harsh language

Pakistan’s third military ruler, General Zia ul Haq, cultivated the image of a humble and religious man but that gave way to the harsh language of a president in uniform. When the Movement for Restoration of Democracy threatened his iron grip on power, Zia ul Haq described support for the movement in Sindh as coming from “dacoits” and, of course “Indian agents”. Women’s protests around the same time were dismissed as the protestations of “Westernised” and promiscuous women pursuing decadence rather than freedom.

Notwithstanding the Pakistan army’s current claims to a special status, the origins of its officers’ corps lie in the native units of the British East India Company.

Recruited to serve the company’s interests from among what the British believed to be India’s martial races, the native officers were trained to be macho men, suspicious of all natives except those wearing a uniform. Military officers justified their service for the British by believing in the superiority of their institution. They lived in well maintained cantonments, were part of a lot of pomp and ceremony and were well rewarded for their services.

The Pakistan army has maintained that colonial tradition, including the one that assumes that the only motive for the native civilian’s action must be money or other personal gain while the military officer is looking out for the state.

In Pakistan’s case, the army’s colonial ethos has contributed to the failure in evolving a viable political system while the absence of a continuous political process has accentuated the military officers’ superiority complex.

Despite the many changes that the world around them has undergone, the mindset generated within Pakistan’s cantonments still remains the same: “The Pakistan army is the country’s saviour”; “The privileges of its generals are just a small reward for their contribution to the country”; “All those who speak about rule of law and human rights violations are distracting from the real task of building the country under the command of the army’s top generals”; “People who criticise alleged wrongdoings under military rule do so only to advance their careers or improve opportunities for themselves”; “Everyone should project a positive image of the country and its generals and victims hold their tongues about their grievances for the sake of the country”.

Another Surreal Election

The Nation (Pakistan), September 7, 2005

In a functioning democracy, elections are held periodically to determine whom the people want to wield executive office and legislative power. Under Pakistan’s vice-regal system, however, the purpose of elections is merely to identify intermediaries between the people and a permanent state establishment. The state establishment monopolises executive power and retains a veto over legislation. The few occasions when elected governments have been allowed to take office, the state establishment has tried its best to circumscribe the power of elected officials.

Between 1972 and1977, an elected government managed to wield full authority simply because the permanent state structure simply could not stay in power after the bifurcation of the country under military rule. Change was necessary if revolution were to be averted. Once the elected civilians had made sufficient mistakes to discredit them, the military-led establishment was ready to reassert itself through the coup d’etat of 1977.

The recently held local government elections were a typically vice-regal electoral exercise. The most farcical aspect of these polls is the anomaly of the election being held on a non-party basis but the ruling party declaring victory. Notwithstanding the pronouncements of Pakistan’s toothless Election Commission, the election was far from free or fair.

Candidates representing the opposition were either disqualified or intimidated. Local influentials were told to throw their weight behind officially approved candidates or at least sever ties with opposition political parties. The intelligence apparatus made it clear that it wanted Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) wiped out and the alliance of Islamist parties, Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), contained.

Although candidates were not running formally as nominees of political parties, their affiliations were known to the local electors. The establishment wanted the King’s Party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Q (PML-Q) to win in Punjab and rural Sindh while the ethnic Muhajir party MQM was to gain control of Urban Sindh. A truncated result in NWFP and Balochistan was desired and secured with military precision.

What must one make of General Pervez Musharraf’s assertion that “extremists have been defeated” in the local government elections? A reference to Pakistan’s chequered history might shed some light on the General-President’s mindset.

In August 1958, almost two months before Pakistan’s first direct military coup, the British High Commissioner at Karachi reported to his superiors in London the possibility of the military’s direct assumption of power. Then president, Major General Iskander Mirza had shared with the High Commissioner the view that democracy was unsuited to a country like Pakistan even as plans were publicly laid out for general elections scheduled for early 1959.

According to declassified British papers, the British High Commissioner, Sir Alexander Symon reported that the Pakistani President had told him of his intention to intervene “if the election returns showed that a post-electoral government was likely to be dominated by undesirable elements.” Sir Alexander noted parenthetically that the term ‘undesirable’ was not defined “and no doubt the term may include any persons who are unlikely to vote for Iskander Mirza as President.”

Just as General Iskander Mirza considered anyone unlikely to vote for him for president as “undesirable”, General Musharraf clearly considers his opponents and critics as “extremists.”

Students of Pakistan’s political history know that soon after the 1958 coup d’etat, Pakistan’s military leadership started searching for “forms of democracy” that would allow the generals to retain control of policy while allowing civilians an illusion of political power and some control over patronage.

Field Marshal Ayub Khan’s Basic Democrats system was the first attempt to present local government as a building block for a gradual transition to democracy, guided by a military ruler. But Ayub Khan found soon after initiating the system that even his Basic Democrats might not elect him president when the sister of Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, ran as the candidate of the combined opposition.

The January 1965 presidential election had to be fixed to ensure Ayub Khan’s re-election and the country had to be plunged into war later that year to redeem the General’s reputation as the nation’s saviour. Fixed elections ensure a General’s continued control over the country’s government but are insufficient to provide the legitimacy that all coup makers badly covet.

The weakness of Ayub Khan’s system was exposed when he was forced to resign after months of street protests. Instead of transferring power under the constitution he had enforced, Ayub Khan allowed abrogation of the constitution and handed over to another general.

Constitutional reforms and the need for a new system had clearly been excuses to justify government by the army commander-in-chief. Once Ayub was no longer in charge at GHQ, the baton had to be passed on to whomever commanded the army. Basic Democrats had outlived their utility and the carefully crafted constitution was by now useless.

In 1970, General Yahya Khan held a free and fair national election in the hope that it would return a truncated parliament that he would then bend to his own wishes. Declassified American government papers cite Yahya Khan’s generals telling diplomats in private that they were “attempting to insure that the Constituent Assembly is so fragmented as to render impossible the drafting of a constitution.” The military wanted the populace “to realise that the politicians cannot act unitedly,” providing justification for continued military rule. The official plan called for an honest casting of ballots and an honest count. Official influence on the outcome of the polls was to be managed, not through the rigging of the ballot, but by manipulation of the process leading to the elections.

The results of the 1970 election surprised the military establishment, leading them to believe that never again should the political process be given free rein. Once they had got rid of populist politician Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the military’s institutional view of democracy was summed up in the words of an associate of General Ziaul Haq. Talking to a US academic, this three-star general had said, “Elections have given birth only to goons and chaos and confusion.”

From 1988 to 1999, the military establishment attempted to manage the “goons and chaos and confusion” until General Musharraf’s coup d’etat brought Pakistan back to a 1958-like moment. The nation’s generals went back to the drawing board, attempting to craft a “new system”, a major element of which once again happens to be the local government system.

The military establishment and its apologists argue that the military’s political intervention was necessitated by the widely discussed incompetence and corruption of the politicians that held power during the 1990s. But Pakistan’s history did not begin in 1988 and with the political competition between Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, both of whom have been systematically maligned by Pakistan’s establishment.

Pakistan’s army chiefs, beginning with Ayub Khan, have disqualified a generation of politicians at ten-year intervals, claiming that through local government and “grassroots democracy”, duly controlled by the ISI, they will produce a stable, democratic system over time.

Pakistan’s problem, quite clearly, does not lie with specific politicians and their flaws. It is the product of an attitude that puts generals on a pedestal, refuses to recognise politics as a legitimate occupation and refuses to allow the will of the people to manifest itself in free and fair elections.

The Trouble with Pakistan Politics

Gulf News, September 2, 2005

In a functioning dem-ocracy, elections are held periodically to determine whom the people want to wield executive office and legislative power.

Under Pakistan’s viceregal system, however, the purpose of elections is merely to identify intermediaries between the people and a permanent State establishment.

The State establishment monopolises executive power and retains a veto over legislation.

The few occasions when elected governments have been allowed to take office, the State establishment has tried its best to circumscribe the power of elected officials.

Between 1972 and 1977, an elected government managed to wield full authority simply because the permanent State structure simply could not stay in power after the bifurcation of the country under military rule.

Change was necessary if revolution were to be averted. Once the elected civilians had made sufficient mistakes to discredit them, the military-led establishment was ready to reassert itself through the coup d’├ętat of 1977.

The recently held local government elections were a typically viceregal electoral exercise. The most farcical aspect of these polls is the anomaly of the election being held on a non-party basis but the ruling party declaring victory.

Notwithstanding the pronouncements of Pakistan’s toothless Election Commission, the election was far from free or fair.
Candidates representing the opposition were either disqualified or intimidated.

Some Corps Commanders of Pakistan’s ostensibly professional army told local influentials to throw their weight behind officially approved candidates or at least sever ties with opposition political parties.

The ubiquitous political wing of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) operated from the shadows to coerce or blackmail candidates in some districts.

The military-intelligence apparatus made it clear that it wanted Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) wiped out and the alliance of Islamist parties, Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) contained.

Although candidates were not running formally as nominees of political parties, their affiliations were known to the local electors.

The establishment wanted the King’s Party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Q (PML-Q), to win in Punjab and rural Sindh while the ethnic Mohajir party MQM was to gain control of Urban Sindh.

A truncated result in NWFP and Balochistan was desired and secured with military precision.

What must one make of General Pervez Musharraf’s assertion that “extremists have been defeated” in the local government elections?

A reference to Pakistan’s chequered history might shed some light on the General-President’s mindset.

In August 1958, almost two months before Pakistan’s first direct military coup, the British High Commissioner at Karachi reported to his superiors in London the possibility of the military’s direct assumption of power.

Then president, Major General Iskander Mirza had shared with the High Commissioner the view that democracy was unsuited to a country such as Pakistan even as plans were publicly laid out for general elections scheduled for early 1959.

Intervention

According to declassified British papers, the British High Commissioner, Sir Alexander Symon, reported that the Pakistani president had told him of his intention to intervene “if the election returns showed that a post-electoral government was likely to be dominated by undesirable elements”.

Sir Alexander noted parenthetically that the term “undesirable” was not defined “and no doubt the term may include any persons who are unlikely to vote for Iskander Mirza as President”.

Just as Mirza considered anyone unlikely to vote for him for president as “undesirable”, Musharraf clearly considers his opponents and critics as “extremists”.

Students of Pakistan’s political history know that soon after the 1958 coup d’├ętat, Pakistan’s military leadership started searching for “forms of democracy” that would allow the generals to retain control of policy while allowing civilians an illusion of political power and some control over patronage.

The military establishment and its apologists argue that the military’s current political intervention was necessitated by the widely discussed incompetence and corruption of the politicians that held power during the 1990s.

But Pakistan’s history did not begin in 1988 and with the political competition between Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, both of whom have been systematically maligned by Pakistan’s establishment.

Pakistan’s problem, quite clearly, does not lie with specific politicians and their flaws.

It is the product of an attitude that puts generals on a pedestal, refuses to recognise politic